Monday, 10 June 2013

Losing Faith - How Christadelphian evolution denialism harms our community

In 2011, the Barna Group, a Christian market research firm released the findings [1] of a five year long project looking into how teenagers and young adults maintained their faith in a rapidly-changing world. One of their findings was that nearly 60% of Christians after the age of 15 leave the faith either permanently or for an extended period of time. Two of these six reasons are directly related to the phenomenon of evolution denialism:
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).
We are fooling ourselves if we think these are not problems for the Christadelphian faith. Ex-Christadelphians have mentioned science denialism when reflecting on their life in our community, and its role in their departure was significant: 
I didn’t quite realise how much my mother buys into it, until a couple of years ago when Dad left the room and I made some comment about his ignorance regarding evolution. She snapped – “so where do you think the animals came from? They didn’t just happen, did they?”
I feel that if you’re that stupid you should keep your mouth shut. I’m sorry to talk so disparagingly about my parents, but I feel that if the Bible and the Christadelphians had never happened to their lives, that they would be nicer human beings.
Perhaps unrelated to Christadelphianism, my mother often remarks (as she has done so for as long as I can remember), that I “think too much”. My retort remains the same, “no, you don’t think enough” [2]
For one ex-Christadelphian, evolution denialism was a direct factor in his loss of faith:
One afternoon, a little while later, I was sat at home watching TV whilst my mother worked on something at the dining table. I was watching a show about dinosaurs, marvelling as complete fossilised skeletons were being dug up by archaeologists, this clearly showed the ‘dinosaurs never existed’ statement to be a bare-faced lie. The programme went on to discuss how birds had evolved from reptiles, and how it was probably that the descendants of smaller dinosaurs are still with us, hopping around in trees, filling our skies, and pooing on our cars. My mother was clearly listening and decided to clarify something, ‘Of course, they’ve never found a fossil that shows a half lizard half bird’. Her timing couldn’t have been worse, as the very next moment there appeared on screen a fossil of a winged lizard with teeth and feathers, as perfect a transitionary form as one could hope to see. ‘What about that one?’ I asked.
Either the Bible was wrong, or the evidence of the world around me was wrong…..the Bible was starting to lag behind on points. 
Two things were responsible for my final shift into atheism: Firstly, the Bible itself, a book so riddled with contradictions and outright nastiness that it deserves to be almost taken apart verse by verse...The second is Evolutionary Biology, a fact so inarguable in its anti-creation myth fire power that it reduces faith in an all knowing, all powerful creator God to a smouldering pile of rubble. [3]
 Quite understandably, these ex-Christadelphians are motivated enough to write such articles concemning the obscurantism and science denialism in our communiy represent only a small percentage of ex-Christadelphians who have left our community over its rejection of the fact of evolution. Many more simply leave our body when they encounter the subject of evolution at high school, uniersity or through their own self-study, realise that the anti-evolution arguments used in our community are embarrassingly wrong and leave the Christadelphian faith. These leave our community because they have been bluntly told that they have to choose between a literal interpretation of the creation narratives and science, and have enough intellectual honesty not to believe a lie and profess special creationism under pain of disfellowship.

A few examples should suffice. One comes from a Christadelphian who worries about science denialism has on hsi children:
You see, they each have been the subject of ridicule by their Sunday school teachers because they didnt toe the line on certain popular Christadelphian positions on...Creation.
A few examples: For a couple of years their Sunday school teacher taught a 7K year-old earth, that humanity originated in Mesopotamia, in an global flood. Because of this, my son was openly laughed at (yes, right there in class) when he said he believed in evolution, my daughter chastised for saying humanity originated in Africa. At the time I told my kids to respect her and hold their tongue. Looking back, I should have immediately dealt with it. That it is still unresolved in their minds means that they both to this day reference these episodes, among other issues (which Ill briefly address below), when they express their disinterest in our community. They express such things often.
Unfortunately, at this point in their lives my kids have no interest in being baptized. I am positive now that my daughter will simply walk away when she starts university in the fall, and my son may most likely follow suit if I cant change his mind in the next couple of years. Both are so disillusioned with our community because of what they see as a staunch fundamentalist attitude and extremely cliquish atmosphere. For my son, it is the rejection of evolution...
 It is impossible not to get angry at this shabby treatment of young people who are already dealing with the usual stresses of peer pressure and academic worries without humiliating them for the 'crime' of accepting the overwhelming evidence of an evolutionary origin of life on this planet. If you wanted to alienate a thoughtful, intelligent child, then ridiculing that child in front of his or her peers is the quickest way to do this.

Other comments show that the problem is hardly isolated:
I will be spending most of this semester studying common descent and evolution in first year biology, and have done so through DNA and cells so far. It really is fascinating and very undeniable. There's also a young Christo girl from [a conservative ecclesia] in the subject, and I am interested to know what she's thinking. 
My own eldest son has decided he cannot be baptized because he has seen the evidence for evolution with his own eyes, and our ecclesia will not tolerate discussion on the subject. Unlike some young people, he is too honest to say he doesn’t believe it, just so that he can ‘pass the test’ and be baptized. [4]
The response of many of the more senior members of our faith community to this need for intelligent, sensitive help has been frankly ill-informed, unsympathetic and ultimately dangerous for the long-term future of our community. One correspondent in a recent issue of our community's flagship magazine The Christadelphian demonstrated this in full in a recent letter to the editor:
Nevertheless it is necessary for us, who believe in the Creator, to address the points made by Dawkins...Why did creatures exist in the past that can be arranged, gaps notwithstanding, in the sequence we see printed? Why do modern organisms have the particular similarities and differences in their anatomy, biochemistry and genetics that permit him to make that claim? 
I suggest we can find an answer to this in the Garden of Eden. The first couple's religious duity was to obey a simple command not to eat of the fruit of a particular tree. There was also rpesent the serpent to offer a different point of view so that the choice to obey or not to obey was a real one. When the woman ate the fruit she did so believing that she had a sound rationale for her choice (Genesis 3:6). So it was that the first evidence-based deicion made by humans was the wrong one...

In a world where God has permitted us to understand so much through science and to apply it through technology, a principle choice we make today is to believe in Him or to be an atheist. Atheism cannot exist without an explanation of the origin of species so there has to be a seemingly plausible theory available.

The unquestioning acceptance in society fo Darwin's theory as the explanation for the diversity of life, like the serpent in the garden, forces us to make that choice. [5]
The disparaging reference to evidence-based decision confirms that for people such as this writer, blind faith, childish dismissals of scientific evidence and a privileging of a fundamentalist reading of the Bible are the appropriate response to questions from worried young people. I can think of no more effective way to drive away these young people and  condemn our community to obscurantist irrelevance, dwindling numbers and extinction than such a clueless, uninformed, ignorant response such as that penned above.

These young people are being let down badly by their ecclesias. Instead of being given the freedom to express honest doubts and ask ahrd questions, they are being issued ultimatums - reject evolution or be disfellowshipped. This atmosphere of fear and intimidation that exists in some areas of our community reflects poorly on us, and thsoe who maintain it need to be condemned in no uncertain terms.

This sadly is not an idle threat as people are still being hurled out of ecclesias because they have the honesty to admit that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of evolution, and special creation cannot be defended given what we know of the world. 

The frustrating thing is that the impact of evolution on our faith is not that significant. Geneis 4 hints at the existence of people other than Cain, Abel, Aam and Eve as evidenced by the reference by Cain to people whom he feared would kill him, and the off-hand reference to Cain finding a wife. Archaeology and palaeoanthropology confirm that, as the evidence for a human presence on this earth stretches back hundreds of thousands of years, back to the human-ape speciation event around six million years ago. The creation of Adam in a world already populated with human beings who had arisen via evolution not only is consistent with science, but makes far better sense of Gen 4 than the fundamentalist theory of 'Divine Incest' which postulates Cain - and Seth - marrying their sisters. By making Adam the first person with whom God entered into a covenant relationship, the problems with understanding Christian theology in the light of the fact of evolution largely disappear.

For those who think that brutal disfellowship of the intellectually honest believers who make an evidence-based decision (rather than a blind faith based decision) is consisent with following Christ, the following should give them pause for thought, and maybe prick their conscience: 
John 10v11-13 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep."

Matt 18v6 "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
This article first appeared at my Facebook page here


2. I Was a Thinking Child Whose Truth? January 3 2013

4. Needless to say, those making these remarks prefer to remain anonymous given that parts of our community still excommunicate people for accepting the fact of evolution and who have the honesty not to believe a lie in order to remain in fellowship. That this can take place in a world where the genomics revolution has proven common descent beyond all reasonable doubt is an indictment on our community, and one which should cause it to feel deeply ashamed.

5. Crawford M Letters to the Editor: "Darwin or the Gospel" The Christadelphian Dec 2009